AV Deggar examines how the Vote Leave coalition might react to emboldened separatist forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland
Local elections this month left Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party bloodied, losing nearly 500 seats across the UK – their worst performance in a quarter century.
As well as losing token English councils like Westminster and Margaret Thatcher’s beloved Wandsworth to Labour, across the border in Scotland the Scottish National Party (SNP) claimed victory, adding 22 more councilors to its record total of 2017.
The shock wave turned seismic days later when Sinn Féin was confirmed as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly – becoming the first Irish Republican party to lead the polls in the nation’s history.
Mid-term malaise, the ongoing ‘Partygate’ saga, the cost of living crisis and disenchantment with Boris Johnson have all been cited as contributing factors to the collapse of the Conservative Party’s local elections. While all are valid contributors, it is the Brexit effect that has intensified discontent in regions where the remaining majorities persist.
Johnson’s hardest possible Brexits galvanized the independence movement in Scotland and helped the cause of Irish reunification. In the process, the Conservative and Unionist Party nurtured its ideal black beast in the ongoing culture war – the betrayal of the separatists.
Nationalist powder kegs
Before the counting of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections is complete, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said her party will seek to hold a border ballot on Ulster’s integration into the Republic of Ireland. Ireland by 2027.
Although Unionist parties still represent the largest bloc in the Legislative Assembly, the largest loyalist presence, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has seen a decline in vote share in all constituencies in Northern Ireland. North.
A big part of the DUP’s downfall was its trust and supply partnership with Theresa May and later Johnson’s governments, which backed successive Conservative regimes in Westminster but ended with the Northern Ireland Protocol and a border on the Irish Sea.
Seen as a dislocation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, the DUP opposes the protocol, which protects the integrity of the EU’s single market without the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland, but does not allow goods to travel unrestricted from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
While 54 of the 90 newly elected members of the Stormont Assembly are pro-Protocol, the DUP has confirmed it will not enter power-sharing until there is ‘decisive action’ at this subject – i.e. radical modification or total repeal.
Compulsorily, the UK government has been threatening to waive its responsibilities under the protocol since September 2020, admitting it would be breaking international law in the process.
The sound of the saber has become deafening in recent days, with the UK Attorney General approving the removal of large chunks of the protocol, and Foreign Secretary and Conservative leadership hopeful Liz Truss threatening to scrap it altogether – perhaps precipitating unrest in Northern Ireland and a wider trade war with the EU.
Similarly in Scotland, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, backed by her Scottish Green partners in government, has pledged to hold a second independence referendum by 2026, and preferably before the end of 2023.
After 15 years in power and winning 11 elections at Holyrood and Westminster, the SNP’s hold on power is unassailable. With an independence majority in the Scottish Parliament, another independence plebiscite is inevitable. Granting IndyRef2 is a matter for the UK government alone at Westminster, and denying the Scots a second vote would be unjustifiable.
Outside of the current cost-of-living crisis, the biggest headache for any flavor of the Conservative administration fighting the upcoming election will be constitutional — and could be cynically weaponized to become their greatest asset in the ballot boxes.
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A corner strategy
What we now call “culture wars” have been an integral part of American politics since the era of Richard Nixon as “corner issues” – social sticking points that have the potential to divide or impose a polarity of opinion. “God, Guns and Gays” is a perfect example.
Characterized by Ronald Reagan adviser Lee Atwater and practiced to this day by Lynton Crosby, Johnson’s stalwart and on-and-off conservative election consultant, corner strategy has been rebranded for the digital age, where largely unregulated social media and a compliant client press allows contentious issues to be extruded to their most sensational climax.
The Wedge strategy found its ultimate expression in British politics during the build-up to and aftermath of the Brexit referendum in 2016, when contentious issues such as immigration intermingled with hyper-nationalism and Europhobia. British – largely crafted and driven by right-wing voices in mainstream countries and digital media.
Like Signing time has shown many times, the pernicious role of the media in the outcome of the European referendum cannot be overstated.
In 2015, the Ipsos MORI pollster showed that only 1% of the UK population believed the EU was “the most important problem facing Britain today”, alongside “overpopulation” and “morality”. A month before the signing of the withdrawal agreement in 2019, 57% think Brexit is the country’s biggest concern. People who hadn’t given a passing thought to the EU were now burning blue and gold flags in the streets. Politically disaffected and unengaged people became radicalized.
Crossing traditional ideological lines and broad coalitions of Westminster party churches, the internecine hostilities have fractured the party and the people. Allegiances and priorities have been reformatted to align with Leave or Remain trends, exacerbated by the parliamentary deadlock that left Brexit sucking all political oxygen for three and a half years, only exhaling toxins in an already toxic political atmosphere.
The Brexit wedge has become a cover for damage to society at large – five years of searing austerity have become 10 before Brexit is ‘done’. Health inequalities have increased, the pay gap has increased, government spending per child has fallen, general poverty has skyrocketed, homelessness has soared, the public sector has reduced to its smallest size since World War II, libraries and youth clubs have been replaced by food banks and community kitchens. The fabric of the nation has been shredded, only noticed by those whose lives have been torn at the seams.
Wanted or not, cultural mores-based corner strategy and populism had acted to mask the socio-economic rot of British life, as well as to create a valuable new adversary, an ‘other’ target for the lowest forces of chauvinism. In the shared enmity for the EU, a powerful new reactionary coalition was formed which could be periodically reactivated with the same Pavlovian inputs, and for equally destructive ends.
A rhetoric of betrayal
In the years to come, the “betrayal of separatism” may well become the main issue around which to rally the reactionary Brexit core, bringing together cross-party consensus against a common enemy and masking the cracks of economic difficulties.
Whatever nickname is used to describe those who advocate Scottish independence and Irish reunification – separatists, secessionists, mutineers, insurgents, traitors – these nationalists are likely to be portrayed as wreckers and defectors, Confederates seeking to implode the Union from within in an act of self-harm that strikes at the very heart of British identity.
The mode of attack is already tested, and the precedent set for the rhetoric of betrayal to invade public discourse. Boris Johnson’s repeated use, and his defense in 2019, of calling a law that would force him to ask for more time to agree a Brexit deal ‘The Surrender Act’, was the perfect trial balloon for an inflammatory speech. While implored to moderate its tone, a Parliament without sanction for intemperate language relies on self-censorship – something that did not happen.
With multiple unique-in-a-generation crises playing out simultaneously, a government that hides its failures behind the blame of others, needs both an enemy and a scapegoat – with Scottish and Irish nationalism presented as a betrayal, he can have both, with all the collateral damage that demonizing an enemy within could bring to British society.
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